Connecting Cultures During COVID

ECF grant helps CCILEX continue providing language training to newcomers during pandemic

“There’s just certain things you can’t do on Zoom” Carol McKinley says, cheerily but wearily.

A volunteer English teacher with the Cultural Connections Institute Learning Exchange (CCILEX), McKinley has been leading ESL classes online since May. It’s the first time in her 11 years of work at the Institute that she hasn’t been meeting her students, who for a variety of reasons don’t qualify for government-sponsored ESL programs, face to face. “I was used to using a whiteboard, for instance,” McKinley explains, “and you can’t get anyone up and moving or in groups. But, as one of my students said: Hard bread is better than no bread!”

Feeding the minds of its diverse group of students has been a challenge since COVID closed the doors of CCILEX’s downtown campus in March. Though the main thrust of the Institute’s mission is giving people language skills, Executive Director Anne-Marie Kallal says the primary way they did that was to help people plug into a community, whether with their classmates or in the volunteer opportunities and cultural experiences that help connect current and former students.

“Everything we do is centred on people and connections and building relationships — it’s our whole being,” Kallal explains. “And then all the sudden we couldn’t have people in our doors.”

Though the wider world will have to wait, with the help of a $6,800 Edmonton Community Foundation COVID-19 Rapid Response Grant, CCILEX was at least able to get its classes back up and running at a distance. The money allowed CCILEX to train their largely volunteer teachers on how to use online tools like Zoom.

“Language barriers is one of the largest hurdles newcomers face coming to a new community,” Nneka Otogbolu, ECF’s Director of Communications and Equity Strategy, says. “This grant will help ensure that CCILEX can continue helping develop language skills in the community so everyone can reach their full potential here in Edmonton.”

In keeping with their community spirit, ECF also supported these teachers to train their fellow teachers and students on the necessary platforms, allowing classes to continue at nearly the same level as pre-COVID.

“This grant really gave us a focal point, and helped us to get organized,” says Kallal. “It let us have a plan in a time of chaos and awfulness.”

Though CCILEX has been able to offer some classes in-person through the summer and fall, they’ve found that some students  preferred the online version, particularly since the lack of commute makes it easier for students and teachers to balance demands from family or work.

Of course, it helps that everyone has involved has managed to find ways to build community through their screens.

“It’s not as detached as we all thought it would be,” admits Kallal. “People are in their homes, so they’re often a bit more comfortable. We’d have people showing the class to their kids, their cats — sometimes it was like a family reunion on there!”

Learn more about ECF’s COVID-19 response.